The number of juveniles prosecuted for misdemeanor and felony level crimes in Dakota County continued its downward trend in 2013, falling to the lowest level in a decade, the latest statistics show.
After falling for the better part of a decade, prosecutions of juveniles had spiked from 1,334 in 2011 to 1,498 in 2012. But in 2013, the number plunged to 1,119 — less than a third of the number of youths charged with serious crimes in 2004.
The most common violent crime committed by juveniles was misdemeanor assault, which involved 216 of the 261 youths, ages 10 to 17, charged with violent crimes. Eighteen were charged with dangerous weapons violations, 14 with sex offenses, nine with terroristic threats, two with robbery and two with criminal vehicular homicide.
"With the exception of , we have seen a steady decrease in the number of juveniles charged with felonies each year … which is remarkable given our size and growth over the last decade," County Attorney Jim Backstrom said. "I am proud of the great work being done in our schools, law enforcement and community organizations and the partnerships we have developed to address these youth issues."
The Dakota County numbers reflect a similar decline in all levels of juvenile crime seen in the state and nationally, which the Minnesota Department of Public Safety attributes in part to years of new legislation and funding, as well as shifting economic factors.
Eighty-five percent of the Dakota County cases involving juveniles were misdemeanors. The total numbers fell in 11 of the 12 law enforcement jurisdictions in the county, with the lone exception of Mendota Heights, where the number increased from 13 in 2012 to 15 in 2013.
The biggest decreases came in Lakeville, from 141 in 2012 to 71 in 2013, and in Apple Valley, from 297 to 173.
The state Department of Public Safety said that the number of crimes committed by juveniles has neared a 30-year low, a drop it attributes to new laws, policies and procedures at the state and federal level; increases in funding, and shifting factors such as poverty, unemployment and the overall strength of the economy.
In reports titled "Back to the Future, Volumes 1 and 2," the department said that from 1982 to 1998, the number of juvenile arrests in Minnesota increased 150 percent, from 31,812 to 79,584. From 1998 to 2011, the number plummeted back down to 36,192.
The reports said that between 1986 and 1989, the federal mandatory sentencing minimums established five- to 10-year prison sentences for certain drug-related offenses, and the incarceration of adults contributed to youth moving into more violent criminal roles.
Juvenile involvement in violent crime peaked in the mid-1990s, and during that time, several states, including Minnesota, expanded the conditions under which youth could be tried as adults. Extended juvenile jurisdiction also allowed youths to remain under court jurisdiction with a stayed adult sentence until they were 21.
Juvenile crime steadily declined during the late 1990s and into the 2000s as Minnesota started several juvenile-justice initiatives, including mental health screenings, risk assessment tools to determine community supervision levels and transition plans for some young people leaving correctional facilities.
Backstrom said prevention of juvenile crime has long been a priority for his office. It coordinates a number of youth accountability programs for first-time offenders involved in the illegal use of alcohol, small amounts of marijuana and lower-level property crimes. A more intensive program for second-time users of alcohol or marijuana is also available.
Those programs resolve cases outside of the court process, allowing juveniles to learn from their mistakes and avoid a criminal record. In 2013, 798 offenders were referred to accountability programs, compared with 862 in 2012.
The Peer Court program, a joint project with the county attorney's office, community corrections and the District Court, operated in seven area high schools in 2013. Backstrom also continued his antibullying initiative started in the 2002-03 school year, and to date it has been presented to 18,000 students, staff members and parents.
Other programs include the 26th annual anti-drug/violence poster and calendar contest, resources on Internet safety, materials on keeping teens safe when driving, materials related to the dangers of chemical use, mental health and suicide prevention forums, and ongoing support to the Safe & Drug Free School Coordinators.